Bringing the Outdoors In

Last week I discussed the role of early childhood education, particularly regarding environmental perception and action. At one point I mentioned strategies for bringing the outdoors inside the classroom as a way of extending experiences with the natural environment indoors. What I didn’t mention is that my mother is the Director and Lead Teacher at Pilgrim Preschool here in Bozeman, MT. The program focuses on development of the whole child through experiences in social studies, science, language arts, math, music, and art. I’ve had the delightful fortune of visiting Pilgrim Preschool periodically throughout my adolescence and young adult life. The children are nothing short of entertaining and I always seem to walk away having learned something new.

(Click to Enlarge)The Montana State Bird, Fish, Animal, Tree, Flower, and Insect.

Last summer my mother and I had the idea to paint some of the preschool furniture with plants and animals as a way to brighten up the classroom and bring some natural elements indoors. After some brainstorming, we agreed that I would revive an adorable set of 6 (miniature) wooden chairs by painting them. We started last summer by painting over the original red with a beautiful sky blue. I then made plans to throw a little education in with the art and nature elements by painting one of Montana’s State Symbols on each of the chairs. I settled on using the Montana State Bird, Fish, Animal, Tree, Flower, and Insect.

I figured using state symbols was a simple means to bring part of nature into the classroom in a way rooted in the local landscape. As I mentioned in one of my earlier blogs, effective and lasting education is most powerful when it speaks to people’s circumstance. And when environmental education is focused locally, it becomes more relevant to a child’s everyday life (Ballantyne et al., 2001; Duvall & Zint, 2007; Zampas, 2011). It is thus my hope with this project that even at a scale as small as furniture in a classroom, a little daily exposure to Montana’s State Symbols just might encourage further exploration into what’s beyond the classroom walls.

Ponderosa Pine
(Pinus ponderosa)

(Lewisia rediviva)

Blackspotted Cutthroat Trout
(Oncorhynchus clarkii lewisi)

Grizzly Bear
(Ursus arctos horribilis)

Mourning Cloak Butterfly
(Nymphalis antiopa)

Western Meadowlark
(Sturnella neglecta)

Of course, life moving like it does, it took until this summer for me to actually sit down and do the painting (hence the occasional chips in some of the chairs’ base coats). This past Labor Day weekend provided the perfect opportunity. The whole process took a decent number of hours, so I had ample time to listen to music (found some great new albums) and think. Not surprisingly, I mulled over the whole business of state symbols and what prompted them in the first place.

So I did some digging around.

State Symbols connect the history and culture of a state. They range in categories from land- and resource-centric symbols like those used for the chairs to tradition- and story-centric symbols like State Dance and State Pre-Historic Artifact. Declarations of state symbols, including what categories they cover, is up to the states to decide. Thus, each state has its own unique list of categories for state symbols. Some examples I found surprising:

  • Montana’s State Lullaby: creatively called, “Montana Lullaby,” we have a State Song and State Ballad, too—cowboys and girls like to sing!
  • Oregon’s State Parents: Pioneers Tabitha Moffatt Brown and Dr. John McLoughlin’s aid in the early settlement of the state was enough for this designation.
  • California’s State Folk Dance: dates back to the “Gold Rush Days” when Square Dancing wasn’s the thing to do.
  • Nebraska’s State Beverage: inventing a popular drink can get you a state symbol designation, as Kool-Aid learned following its invention in 1927 in Hastings, NE.
  • Oklahoma’s State Menu Items: there are eleven of them. Buffet time!
  • Alabama’s State Outdoor Musical Drama: The Incident at Looney’s Tavern, a historically-inspired drama that takes place in Civil War-era Alabama.

The plethora of state symbols—many of which are a bit obscure and quite specific—speak to the way our country holds on to tradition and unity through a shared, but diverse heritage. They provide a way to identify with a place culturally, physically, historically, or otherwise. While it can easily seem silly to tie such significance to a thing, I would argue it’s more about the connections made through such things.

If it takes a state symbol to get a child interested in the fish swimming through our rivers, then bring on the wading boots. If a person is inspired to learn more about their family history from a state historical symbol, then call up grandma. I guess what I’m trying to say is that each of us has our own path to the things we care about and love and desire to protect. The important thing is getting to that point—and acting on that desire.

Works Cited

  • Ballantyne, R., Fien, J., & Packer, J. (2001). Program effectiveness in facilitating intergenerational influence in environmental education: Lessons from the field. The Journal of Environmental Education, 32(4), 8.
  • Duvall, J., & Zint, M. (2007). A review of research on the effectiveness of environmental education in promoting intergenerational learning. The Journal of Environmental Education, 38(4), 12.
  • Zampas, G. (2011). The role of education for sustainable development in families’ sustainable consumption. Paper presented at the Global Vision, Local Action: Education for Sustainable Development and Global Citizenship, Bournemouth, U.K.



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